Let’s Be Fair About It
Explore the Bible Series
August 2, 2009
Background Passage: James 2:1-13
Lesson Passage: James 2:1-13
Many years ago I attended a Wednesday night prayer meeting at my home church. Unfortunately, I arrived a moment late because of after-school responsibilities; so, I took a seat, quietly, at the back of the auditorium. A few minutes later, two men slipped in the back door, men dressed in painting overalls, clearly fresh off the job. They did not make a scene; rather, they took a seat without any disturbance to the service. I did not know either of the men, assuming that they came from out of town and simply wanted to attend prayer meeting. After a few minutes, one of the men in the congregation whispered to the men, and the two strangers left the church building. I could not hear what the man whispered, but I got the impression the two painters were asked to leave.
This occurrence has stayed with me (haunted me) for many years. I fear that the men were not dressed appropriately, and they were asked to leave because of their painting apparel. Perhaps they were visitors in our community, and, having just gotten off of work, they wanted to close the day with a season of prayer with a local congregation. I certainly got the impression that they were not welcomed. A band of appropriately dressed worshipers found a warm welcome, but these men could not stay because of their clothing. If I read the situation accurately, I hope the man who asked them to leave considered the weight of his unfortunate action. Frankly, as I have reflected on this event, I have often thought of the Bible passage that informs us that, at times, we may entertain angels unawares (See Hebrews 13:2).
Scholars have noted that 11:00, on Sunday mornings, is still the most segregated hour of the American week. It seems our beloved country has made some progress in racial equality, but I still have great concern about “classism”, the unchristian, unethical segregation of people along economic and social lines. Apparently, this problem troubled churches in the First Century, and James confronted the problem with his usual candor and correction.
Dear readers, based on our study of the poignant passage, I hope we will all prayerfully consider the dangers of partiality, in the body of Christ. I cannot imagine any attitude more at odds with the example and teachings of Jesus that the human tendency to show preference to people who are wealthy or socially acceptable. How do we greet the poor, the disabled, the elderly, the alien, the stranger? Jesus devoted much of his earthly ministry to those that might not find acceptance in some Christian congregations: people of different ethnicity, prostitutes, tax collectors, the disabled, lepers, the mentally ill, working-class people, and the poor. James made these observations on the heels of his comments about ministering to the widows and orphans (See James 1:27). The measure of our godliness turns on our treatment of those who can give us no social advantage. James outlines four reasons why we must not tolerate partiality in the church.
I. Partiality Is Incongruous with Faith in Christ (vv. 1-4)
A. A command given (v. 1): “show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” James, no doubt, mentioned the Lord’s glory because Christian snobbery dishonors Christ who died for the sins of all kinds of people: rich and poor, male and female, high and lowly, married or single, young or old, healthy or ill.
B. An example proposed (vv. 2-3): James proposed a hypothetical example. Suppose a rich man entered a church gathering, at the same time, a poor man sought to worship with God’s people, but the destitute man met with a different greeting than the man of means. The wealthy person received a warm reception, and the congregation afforded him a place of honored distinction. The poor man, on the other hand, is demeaned and mistreated.
C. A pointed application (v. 4): In this hypothetical scenario, James concluded that such behavior reflected an idolatrous spirit. The church leaders had assumed the place of God, judging people based on external observations and appearances.
II. Partiality Is Antithetical to the character of God (vv. 5-6a):
A. An earnest appeal (v. 5a): James referred to his readers as “my beloved brethren”, and he does so, I think, to assure them that he had their best interests at heart. The verb tense here implies that his readers had already engaged in ungodly behavior, but James had not written them off; rather, he exhorts them as he would beloved family members. Furthermore, he sought to arrest their attention to this important matter, “listen”. When Kathy and I raised our girls, we occasionally sought to make a deep impression on them about an important issue related to their maturity. On those occasions, we asked them, “Do you hear me?” We made this appeal out of love and earnestness that they grow in their understanding of ethical. James did much the same thing.
B. A theological observation (v. 5b-6a): God has a tender place in his heart for the poor and oppressed. Read again the Old Testament prophets and note the frequency with which these men chide the ancient Jews for neglect of the poor and helpless. Moreover, observe the trajectory of Jesus’ ministry to the outcast. Shouldn’t our Christian conduct reflect God’s concerns? The Lord has chosen the poor to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom of God. This observation must energize our service to Christ. Sadly, these readers had dishonored the Lord by showing preference to the wealthy and powerful.
III. Partiality is not in the Best Interests of these Believers (vv. 6b-7a): James provided two very practical reasons why believers should not prefer the rich and privileged.
A. “Are not the rich ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court?”: These believers had felt the sting of oppression themselves, at the hands of the very people they favored! James reminded them of their liability to the oppressive arm of the powerful.
B. “Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you are called?”: Wealthy, powerful people not only tyrannized the church, but they spoke evil of the name of Christ. They dishonored Christ and his people. Why, then, would the church prefer such persons?
IV. Partiality Violates the Royal Law of God (vv. 8-13)
A. A warm affirmation (v. 8): “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well.” James implied that his readers did fulfill the royal law, the law that directed them to love their neighbors as themselves (See Leviticus 19:18, Deuteronomy 6:5, and Matthew 22:36-39). He affirmed the genuine godliness of the churches; thus, he encouraged the churches to continue in the holy commandments of God. Vaughan observes that the command to love our neighbor is the royal law because it is the supreme expression of our obligation toward our fellow man, the “king of all laws.”
B. A theological observation (vv. 9-11): For James, the violation of the royal law constituted a disregard for all of God’s commandments. God’s moral directives stand or fall together. To violate one commandment is to violate them all and constitutes a person as a lawbreaker, a sinner worthy of the judgment of God. If we remain chaste and do not murder; yet, we do not fulfill the law of love, we have made ourselves lawbreakers before God.
C. A final application (vv. 12-13): James urged his readers to obey the law of liberty, in speech and conduct. Mercy should characterize the life of the church. What is mercy? Mercy is that spirit which rises to the needs of the broken and wounded. Poor, oppressed people, deprived of the accoutrements of wealth and status, should be special objects of love and support from the people of God.